Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bastille Day

It isn't laziness but too many other things going on that leads me to post a poem today, on Bastille Day, which Direland and others have noted represents much more than an excuse for French people and Francophiles to break open bottles of delicious wine and slather pâté on baguettes or brioches. Human freedom, the end of monarchic absolutism and tyranny, a state guided by Enlightenment ideals and the bourgeoisie...oh well, that's part of the mix too.

Bastille Day actually was the day (July 14, 1789) that the sans-culottes stormed the notorious Paris prison, La Bastille, the hulking embodiment of the ancien régime and the Bourbons, thus accelerating the social and political revolt that had begun several years before among aristocrats and figures high in the church hierarchy. Their desire for greater political power and a new conception of government and society, guided in great part by the writings of Rousseau and other philosophes, led to the revolutionary declaration in early 1789 by members of the Third Estate of popular sovereignty, better known as the Tennis Court Oath, Tricoleurwhich in turn was linked to the riots in Grenoble and the countryside, which gathered force and led to the storming of the Bastille, and thus to the societal revolution that transformed France (bye-bye King Louis XVI, titled nobility, meddlesome church, etc., hello Declaration of the Rights of Man, tricolor, enpowered National Assembly, etc.) and sent shockwaves throughout Europe and its colonies.

Napoleon's ascendancy, the Louisiana Purchase, the Haitian Revolution, the decline of the slave trade, the Brazilian monarchy, the unification of French and British Canada, the resumption of Catholic monasticism in Britain, Mexico's Cinco de Mayo, etc. all are linked directly and indirectly to France's ultimately society-shattering convulsions.

Though France briefly witnessed the return of a monarchy in the mid-19th century, the French Revolution installed in its political and social fabric indelibly the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment (which also underpinned the American Revolution, though the battles themselves and the ultimate outcome were quite different), for better or worse, and these ideas and ideals, in considerably transformed form, underline the contemporary European worldview, or what you might call the European project. (Conservatives, beginning with Edmund Burke, have never forgiven the French for upending the old order in the way they did. You didn't think it all began with the Iraq War and Faux News, did you?)

Update: JL of Modern Kicks notes in his post "Liberté" that when the French Republic inaugurated Bastille Day, or Fête Nationale, in 1880, the event it actually sought to commemorate was July 14, 1790, or the Fête de la Féderation, when the King pledged to honor the constitution, etc. That was, of course, before his head was lopped off.... A bit more idealistic than the storming of the Bastille, though the eventual outcome was even more bloody.

A number of these threads come together (okay, I'm sort of pushing it) in one of the most famous poems in 20th century American literature, and one of my favorites, which references Bastille Day, Lady Day Billie Holiday, jazz, the Hamptons, African poets, Jean Genet and Paul Verlaine, a richly indexed social and intellectual milieu in late 1950s (1959) New York City (52st between 5th and 6th to be exact), Frank O'Hara's (1926-1966) "The Day Lady Died":


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Copyright © The Estate of Frank O'Hara, 1959, 2005.


  1. good post, john. I'm not french, but i do remember a few french resteraunts out here celebrating Bastille Day..

    And yes, Bastille Day is more than a bunch of french folk/francophiles getting drunk and being happy (but, that can be a good thing sometimes..:)) There is this very powerful history behind it that a lot of people aren't that familiar with....

    Check your email...tried calling you last night but I have been battilng yet another minor infection....

  2. For a minute there I thought you were going to pull out one of John Ashbery's poems from THE TENNIS COURT OATH! LOL:)

    Seriously tho, as you point out, Bastille Day is one of the most important moments of World History -- Vive La France! Vive la Liberte', Egalite' Fraternite'!

    The 14th is also my brother-in-law's birthday, and it's part of their family tradition to open some wine and 'let 'em eat cake'

  3. Ryan, vous n'êtes pas français? Je ne vous crois pas du tout! If most people even have a vague idea of the century in which the French Revolution occurred, I'd be surprised; I mean, don't most Americans not really know when the AMERICAN Revolution took place, what it consisted of, and why? C'est incroyable!

    Reggie, you know I thought about one of the JA poems. I love that name, "The Tennis Court Oath." It sounds so un-radical, though it was such a very radical document. Too bad the France of today is such a mess, with its horrible "president," M. Chirac, who I don't think is going to be reelected (there is a God, so there, Nietzsche!). I love your brother's birthday tradition. Baguette, cake, good wine, what more could you want (oh, in France, they want jobs!).